Mothers of Invention Co-Founder Dies at 76
Ray Collins, the singer and co-founder of the Mothers of Invention, died on Monday (Dec. 24) in Pomona, Calif. He had been hospitalized since Dec. 18 after suffering a massive heart attack, and was removed from life support on Saturday. He was 76 years old.
Collins grew up in Pomona and got his musical start singing falsetto in a succession of doo wop groups. Collins was fronting a group called the Soul Giants when he and the band’s guitarist got into an altercation, and when he was looking around for a replacement, he called upon a young musician named Frank Zappa, whom he had met when Zappa played a gig in Pomona.
Zappa’s presence in the band quickly turned them from an R&B and soul cover act into an original group with an emphasis on performing Zappa’s compositions, which were an amalgam of rock, soul, R&B, jazz, classical and virtually every other form of music, with lyrics that satirized modern culture. The group changed their name to the Mothers of Invention, with Collins continuing as their lead singer, and in the counterculture atmosphere of the mid-’60s they were able to land a recording contract.
Collins served as lead singer for the Mothers’ debut album ‘Freak Out!’ in 1966, as well as its follow-up, 1967’s ‘Absolutely Free.’ He quite the group after that, finding Zappa’s outlandish compositional style and satirical lyrics more and more at odds with what he wanted to do musically. “I wanted to make beautiful music,” he recalled to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in 2009. “I was raised on Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole.” He was also uncomfortable with the group’s outrageous stage shows. “I didn’t like doing that stuff onstage. Too much comedy, too much making fun of stuff.”
He returned to the band briefly for the 1968 album ‘Cruising With Ruben & the Jets,’ and continued to contribute to Zappa’s albums off and on throughout the ’70s. He went on to eke out a living as a taxi driver, and later as a dish washer, but never pursued any further musical career to any degree of public success. Though he quit the Mothers before they became profitable, he said that a modest settlement from Zappa and twice-yearly royalties from an old doo wop song he wrote, as well as Social Security in his later years, allowed him to get by, though he led an admittedly hand-to-mouth existence. Some press reports claim he was living out of his van for the last eight years of his life.
“People will ask why it’s been 40 years since I’ve been onstage. I don’t know,” Collins admitted. “If you just enjoy life, it’s conducive to not being successful. You know what I mean? I just enjoy life.”